Despite rising corona numbers, Austria, Czechia and Slovakia want to avoid renewed border closures if possible. Meeting in Schloss Grafenegg in Lower Austria on Sunday, August 30, the three parliamentary presidents – Austrian National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka (ÖVP) and his counterparts from Slovakia, Boris Kollár, and the Czech Republic, Radek Vondráček reaffirmed their commitment to free movement between the countries, in recognition of the economic and social importance of continued cooperation.
“We have assured each other that border closures will be the very last measure,” said Kollár, president of the Slovak Parliament, according to the Slovak news agency TASR.
Kollár also assured Austria that Slovak nurses and caregivers would be allowed to travel to Austria without restrictions in the future.
The announcement took on added weight in light of Hungary’s announcement over the weekend that it would close its borders to foreigners again starting on September 1, a move the three parliamentary presidents discussed in some detail.
According to official parliamentary transcripts, Austrian parliamentary president Sobotka praised the good cooperation between the three countries to date and emphasized that the successful fight against the COVID-19 pandemic would require good and regular coordination between the three neighbors.
Harsh Criticism from Businesses for Hungarian Measures
The Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKÖ) has meanwhile sharply criticized the Hungarian government’s decision to close the country’s borders again. “This threatens to add another unreasonable burden weighing on the economy,” said WKÖ Secretary General Karlheinz Kopf in a statement Sunday evening. “Both domestic firms and commuters are massively affected by the Hungarian border closures.”
Business trips from Austria to Hungary would in future only be exempt from the ban if an Austrian company had a branch office in Hungary. Also, commuters – who number in the thousands – should expect difficult hurdles, warned the WKÖ. According to the new regulations, only commuters from within 30 kilometers of the border may enter Hungary more easily and can only stay for a maximum of 24 hours at a time.
“This represents a significant competitive disadvantage for our companies, since it renders international business trips all but impossible. For a country like Austria, which earns 8 out of 10 export euros within Europe, this is particularly problematic,” said Kopf, calling “finally [for] an EU-wide uniform approach that takes account of economic reality and supports the functioning of the economy rather than endangering it.”
Brussels to the Rescue
In the meantime, the EU Commission has for several months been urging implementation of a better-harmonized system within the Union. Now, Germany, as acting EU president, also wants to put an end to the different approaches of the member states to travel restrictions within Europe, and presented an official paper to this effect which is currently being discussed by the responsible ambassadors and ministers.
Currently, member states are using varied criteria to impose travel restrictions within the EU in response to SARS-CoV-2. This leads to “a different assessment with regard to risk areas,” according to the German paper. In addition, the underlying data is based in some cases on entire countries, and in others only on specific regions.
In many EU countries, there are exact figures as to when a country of origin is classified as a risk area – in Austria, however, the criteria are rather vague.
To address this, the EU Commission presented new proposals to the member states in a working group on Friday, August 28, focused on three central points: common criteria on epidemiological risks, a “color-coding system” for risk classification and a “common approach” to measures for travelers from risk areas, such as quarantine and mandatory coronavirus tests.
The challenge now is as to whether EU member states will find the will to work together, or like Hungary, withdraw into isolation. The resolution of the border question will be telling.